Topic: Graduate Education
by Thalia Robakis
Proposed Actions Currently the system of research lab as academic fiefdom entails a major power imbalance and encourages exploitation of students by the PI. There are too many graduate students and postdocs who exist only to provide cheap labor for the biomedical research machine.
Graduate student stipends should all come from individual or institutional training grants. Not R01s. This would enable central control of the number of trainees, preventing overproduction of PhDs. It would also reduce the power imbalance between PI and student in several ways. First, because the students would not be financially dependent on the PI, they would be more free to switch projects or labs if things were not going well. Second, the faculty administering the training grant would have an interest in the students’ scientific development but not in the particular funded project, thus avoiding conflicts of interest between the students’ development and the success of the PI’s research agenda. Third, graduate students would become a scarcer resource and therefore PIs would have more motivation to treat them well and manage them effectively. Fifth, since the graduate students’ support would not come out of the PI’s grant dollars, there would be less incentive for PIs to have to get their money’s worth out of the student (e.g., by creating pressurized work environments or delaying defenses). Instead, graduate students would represent a resource that would be of no monetary cost to the PI, and graduate students would distribute themselves to laboratories based on scientific interest and quality of the PI as a mentor, which would improve the incentives of PIs to become effective mentors. Sixth, in reducing the number of graduate students, the students themselves would represent a more highly selected and talented group, which should improve their desirability to PIs and hence improve their situation.
Labor for research labs should be provided by expanding the force of permanent technicians with BS or MS degrees, and also of staff scientists who may have a PhD but do not aspire to head a laboratory. This would reduce PI reliance on grad student and postdoc labor and minimize incentives to extend PhD time.